I ran into "Stormin" Norman Bailey the other day. The one-time UConn basketball standout (in the 1980s) is a state juvenile detention officer.
Baily, a man of faith and community-minded, and I usually end up chatting about the plight of urban youth. Too many times he sees the unfinished products as they come out of Juvie. As a journalist and urban school educator, I see them before they get to Bailey.
Frankly, it's not hard to pick out the ones headed for beds in C Block. They are the ones with report cards chock full of F's. That's if they choose to attend class at all.
For the most part, we are talking about males. And if you really want to cut to the chase — black males.
A few years ago, the national dropout rate for African American males was 70 percent. Today, the high school graduation rate for black boys is about 50 percent.
Bailey recently emailed me a link to "Bring Your 'A' Game,'' a fast-paced, 23-minute documentary that showcases an array of high-profile and successful African American males speaking about the value of education and establishing a work ethic.
Produced by actor-director Mario Van Peebles and Karen Williams, it is a must see for every urban school student in America. In it, high achievers such as entertainers P. Diddy and Ice Cube; corporate leaders Richard Parsons and Bruce Gordon; author-actor Hill Harper and Newark Mayor Corey Booker (the latter two Ivy League-educated), keep it real about the consequences of dropping out of school.
"It's all about your intellectual strength," says Booker, adding that physical prowess "can be taken away from you in an instant."
Although many African American boys have misguided aspirations of being professional athletes, the cold reality is that most won't. Any shot at a college scholarship is lost when, as the college scouts say, they have "no pencil" — the grades to qualify for college.
So, college is out, as are the long-shot prospects of being a pro baller. The result is a high school graduate (or dropout) with few options.
As Van Peeples cautions: "You still gotta eat. You've still got to make money. You've still gotta pay rent. You still want all the fly lifestyle, the women, the jewelry, all of it. So how do you get it legally? … You don't."
The viability of the multibillion-dollar prison industry is sustained by underperforming urban schools. These dropout factories produce a precious prison commodity: uneducated urban boys.
"Failing schools equal successful prisons," the Rev. Alfonso Wyatt of New York says in the film.
Connecticut spends about $720 million a year on its prison system. The Department of Correction, despite recent downsizing, has historically been one of the fastest-growing line items in the state budget.
The ethnic makeup of Connecticut's prisons provide fodder for conspiracy theorists. Blacks and Latinos make up about 25 percent of the state's population, but they represent 75 percent of the inmate population. Also,75 percent of the inmates come from the large urban centers — Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven.
The state has the widest academic achievement gap in America between white students and their black and Latino peers. In our prisons, 75 percent of the inmates do not have a high school diploma. Some say poverty (or even racism) is the primary reason for these alarming racial disparities. To me, it is about illiteracy. Education — let's just start with reading — is the great elixir.
It is no urban legend that many for-profit prison systems base their population projections on third- and fourth-grade reading scores. Or, that there are more African American men incarcerated than there are on college campuses. One in three black males, studies show, will spend time in prison.
The plight of the black male has long been a crisis. Black men talking to young brothers about handling their business in the classrooms is a powerful tool. But "Bring Your 'A' Game" is not enough.
"We have to show up on a consistent basis and demonstrate to our children that we care," said Stanley F. Battle, former interim president at Southern Connecticut State University. "And we have to tell them something that makes sense. We can't wait until they're locked up and in the prisons."
Norman Bailey would agree.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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